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In Full Interview, John Holdren Eschews New Nukes, Hints at Space Flight Delays

8 April 2009 3:50 pm
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Three weeks into his job as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology, presidential science adviser John Holdren has laid out clear positions on myriad issues facing the Obama Administration.

Speaking this morning with ScienceInsider, Holdren discussed why he thinks the United States doesn't need to design and build any new nuclear weapons. He warned of likely delays beyond 2015 in replacing the space shuttle after its 2010 retirement and the possibility that U.S. astronauts, in the interim, might arrive at the international space station aboard a Chinese vehicle. He shared his concerns that reporting requirements for spending stimulus money could shackle U.S. scientists. And he lamented the recent decision by the Texas state school board to modify science standards in ways that might undermine the teaching of evolution, warning that it was a "step backwards."

A nuclear physicist with broad expertise in climate, energy, and nuclear proliferation, Holdren conducted a series of interviews today with the media, breaking a self-imposed silence following his confirmation by the U.S. Senate on 19 March. In his conversation with ScienceInsider, he also expressed his plans for filling senior vacancies, described a "downsized" and "energized" President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and explained his role in the Administration's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and foster energy independence.

See below for the full interview.

ScienceInsider: Are you concerned that reporting requirements for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the $787 billion stimulus package) will hamstring U.S. scientists? Or is that the price that scientists have to pay for the additional support?
Holdren: There's clearly a tension there. When you do something as big as the recovery package, there's tremendous pressure to make sure that money's not wasted, that you don't just push the money out the door without any attention to assessment and evaluation to make sure it's well spent. But the other side of the coin is that you don't want to burden people who are doing good work with a degree of reporting requirements that impair their productivity in any significant way. So it's a fundamental tension, and I'm not sure that we've got it exactly right. But it's something we'll be looking at with [the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB)].

ScienceInsider: Will there be any distinction in reporting requirements between spending on research and, say, highway construction?
Holdren: We're in the early stages of the conversation, and there's been no decisions made. It's something that I'm going to be watching. I share the concern that if you overburden researchers with reporting requirements, then you have a problem and you've done a bad thing. And we'll try to avoid that. I have a good working relationship with [OMB Director] Peter Orszag, we've known each other for years. And we'll certainly do our best to get this right.

ScienceInsider: Has the National Science Foundation (NSF) been too conservative by just dipping into the pot of existing proposals, while the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced several competitions?
Holdren: Again, there's a natural tension between the need to get the money out the door under the terms of the stimulus package. And you have this large batch of reviewed proposals that has already met your standards but you didn't have enough money to fund. That's an easy way to ensure that the money will be well-spent, quickly. So obviously, you can get a chunk of the money out the door that way. Now, the balance between how NSF and NIH is doing it is a little different. I don't have a judgment at this point of which will be more successful. They are both struggling with this tension between getting it out the door quickly, with confidence, and trying to do completely new things. Now one of the things that is happening is that in addition to the stimulus package, the budgets of these agencies are going up as part of the normal budget process. So there's a certain rationale in funding already-approved proposals with the stimulus money and doing the more creative things with money from the ensuring budget cycles.

ScienceInsider: Will you play any role in how that is resolved, or have most decisions already been made?
Holdren: There's an interaction, particularly with agencies like NSF and NASA that don't report to a Cabinet secretary. But my inclination is to not interfere with what those agencies think they need to do, unless I think for some reason that they're not thinking of some obvious and wonderful thing they could be doing. Of course, I work closely with OMB on guidelines for their budget submissions, and Peter and I are working on that document now for the 2011 document. And there is some attempt to try and make sure that those priorities are also being addressed in the stimulus funding.

ScienceInsider: Who do you contact if there's an issue you think deserves the attention of the president?
Holdren: I go to the president. I'm an assistant to the president. I request an appointment with the president. Naturally, it is prudent to talk to the stakeholders in the White house before one does that. But then I request an appointment.

ScienceInsider: Have you done it?
Holdren: Yes, and I've met with the president multiple times.

ScienceInsider: What were the topics?
Holdren: I'm not going to discuss the details. But in general terms, we have talked about initiatives that the Administration could take in science, technology, engineering, and math education. We've talked about issues related to energy and climate policy. We've talked about national security issues. We've talked about stem cells. The portfolio of this office is very broad. Basically, we've got science and technology's interaction with the economy, with health, with energy and environment, with homeland security, with cross-cutting research, with space program, information technology, the strength of fundamental research within our university system. It's a big agenda, and my responsibility is to make sure the president has the advice he needs on every topic in which S&T interacts with his priorities.

ScienceInsider: Do you expect OSTP to play a bigger role in national security?
Holdren: Actually, I don't yet have the associate director for national security and international affairs. Steve Fetter is assistant director at large, so I can deploy him on energy, climate change, and nuclear weapons. Steve has very similar background to my own, and Steve has a portfolio similar to mine, and when I can't be in two places at once, I have complete confidence that Steve will be bringing the same things to the table that I would have brought. We will ultimately have an associate director who will be dual-hatted in the [National Security Council]. But I also have a role in the NSC. Whenever science and technology are on the table, I'm there. And we have a substantial role in homeland security, too, by statute and by a series of executive orders, relating to biodefense and nuclear defense and counterterrorism, cybersecurity. In fact, about a quarter of the floor space for OSTP falls in the classified domain, and a quarter of our people work in that domain.

ScienceInsider: Will we need to build a renewable replacement weapon in order to win Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)?
Holdren: My personal view—I don't make the policy, but I provide advice—is that we do not need a new warhead. I led a [National Academies'] study at the end the Clinton Administration and the beginning of the Bush Administration on technical issues relating to ratification of the test ban treaty. It was a very high-powered committee. And we concluded that the safety and effectiveness of the current nuclear stockpile could be maintained indefinitely without developing new warheads but by monitoring the situation and making modifications if necessary. My personal view is that designing a nuclear warhead and deploying it would throw out a good part of the baby with the bathwater. It negates a substantial advantage to ratifying the test ban treaty because it would send a message to the world that the United States still thinks that it can and should design and deploy new warheads when circumstances require it. If that's the case, what have you accomplished with CTBT?

ScienceInsider: Do you foresee new priorities for the nuclear weapons labs?
Holdren: In reality, they have always been multimission labs, and the proportion of weapons' work [to the whole] has varied over the years. The challenge is how to maintain a highly motivated and trained and capable work force that understands weapons so that we can respond to circumstances. I think that the scientific challenge of stockpile stewardship is adequate to that task, and I believe that can be done without new weapons.

ScienceInsider: Will we need additional shuttle missions to complete the space station?
Holdren: The current plan is to get an additional shuttle mission to the space station within the 2010 framework, and during the campaign the president said that he was open to the possibility of at least one more mission. The current thinking is that that can be done within 2010. If that can't be done and things slip, then consideration will be given to going beyond that date. And that would be the last shuttle mission. There will be a gap in our capacity to put people in space with U.S. vehicles, because we will not have a follow-on to the shuttle ready before 2015.

ScienceInsider: Will it be only 5 years?
Holdren: I wouldn't want to speculate. It's going to be at least that long. I don't see any way we can do it before 2015, and if things go as they often do, it might be a little later than 2015. And what we'll have to do in that interim period is rely on our international partners, which means the Russians. It might also be the Chinese, depending on how our relationship develops.

ScienceInsider: Do you have confidence in China's ability to launch our astronauts?
Holdren: I think it's possible in principle to develop the required degree of confidence in the Chinese. I put it out there only as speculation, but I don't think it should be ruled out.

ScienceInsider: Will your review of scientific ethics include a review of conflict-of-interest policies at each agency?
Holdren: I think it has to look at that. I wouldn't prejudge what we're going to say. But the question is, 'What are the appropriate boundaries?'

ScienceInsider: What about full disclosure for all NIH grantees?
Holdren: I don't feel comfortable prejudging that. It's not a domain with which I'm closely familiar. I would be interested in the views of Harold Varmus and Eric Lander on that. They are co-chairs of PCAST, which has not yet been fully constituted.

ScienceInsider: How soon will its members be named?
Holdren: I hope within a month. And since I have as co-chair of PCAST the former director of NIH, and one of the smartest people I know, I'm not going to go on record on that issue without talking first to Harold.

ScienceInsider: Do you talk to him?
Holdren: Oh, yeah. I talk to Harold and Eric and we see each other regularly. We were all announced on the same date [20 December], and they are both terrific assets to the Administration's science team. I haven't asked Harold that question, but I will. He'll certainly be involved as we develop those guidelines.

ScienceInsider: What areas will the associate directors handle? Will it be science, technology, energy/environment, and national security/international affairs?
Holdren: Yep. Although when you say energy, the title will be environment, and how energy will be handled remains to be seen. It depends in part on who we recruit for technology. Right now, the only associate director who has been nominated is Shere Abbott, for environment. We have a couple in the pipeline that haven't been announced.

ScienceInsider: How soon will that be?
Holdren: I'm hoping that we have them all announced by the time we announce PCAST. The most important thing is to get the right people. The second most important thing is to get them here, so that they can relieve me of some of my load.

ScienceInsider: So you haven't decided where energy will go?
Holdren: Well, energy is one of my big things. I'm going to pay a lot of attention to energy. Energy is one of Steve Fetter's big things, who's on board as assistant director at large. And we have Kevin Hurst, a senior policy analyst who's been working on energy. So right now we have a strong energy team, and we'll be bringing even more energy capability on board. But I'm not a big believer in stovepipes. I'm a believer in assembling teams that consist of the right people to do particular things. So while each associate director will have a domain, there will be several activities across domains, and I would expect energy to be an issue that engages folks in the environment directorate, in technology, and in international affairs. International cooperation with other countries will be a big deal, so the people doing international affairs will certainly have a piece of that action.

ScienceInsider: Given the Administration's energy team—Steve Chu, Carol Browner, Lisa Jackson, among others—what special expertise and perspective do you bring?
Holdren: Number one, of the people you just named, the only other scientist is Steve Chu. And Steve Chu and I, in the interagency working group on energy and climate, represent the science and technology side. Steve and I are both knowledgeable about a wide variety of energy technologies, and we are very close partners. We both know a fair amount about climate science, and we have others working for us who know even more. Carol Browner, the former EPA director, is a brilliant analyst of policy and regulation. And we have at the table Larry Summers, Christina Romer, and Peter Orszag, who cover the economic side. We also have cabinet secretaries who have big stakes in the energy issue, and they bring to the table important constituencies. And we all collaborate, we're not competing.

ScienceInsider: Do you have any plans to restructure the interagency National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) as principals only, or at some higher level than at present?
Holdren: Well, NSTC was initially set up to be a deputies' activity—deputy secretaries, deputy agency heads—who are empowered to speak for their principals. And when issues cannot be resolved at that level, then they go to the principals, which is standard practice at the White House. I plan to invigorate NSTC, which was not terribly active during the previous Administration. My impression was that it was sufficiently inactive that the deputies designated lower-level people to go. I plan to reinvigorate it as a deputies-level operation, with a serious role of reconciling and integrating the agencies of the various agencies. It will have more frequent meetings and address some important issues. Obviously, energy and climate, space, innovation for economic prosperity—these are all important issues, and we will be standing up NSTC panels to address them. And we will make it meaningful again because there's an active channel to the president. Remember, this is a president who means what he says, that science and technology are back in the center of things. He means it, and it's happening. And that is energizing people in this office, and in NSTC, and in PCAST. We're downsizing PCAST to about 20 people, to make it more agile and responsive.

ScienceInsider: What's the relationship between NSTC and the new space council?
Holdren: The space council is not yet fully articulated. One model is that it would be co-chaired by NSC and OSTP because of civil and military aspects of space. But it might sit as a committee within PCAST or be freestanding. In a previous time, it reported to the office of the vice president. There are different options that are being considered. But there will be a space council. And again, it will be meaningful because, where ever it sits, its conclusions will propagate to the president. We've got a president who cares about these issues and who has a huge capacity to absorb complex issues, and we're going to use that capacity.

ScienceInsider: The president also cares a lot about education. How will OSTP handle science education?
Holdren: It'll be within the associate director for science. Everybody has a stake in it, however. And we will have an associate director for science who is known for his or her commitment to strengthening science, technology, engineering, and math education. That's already clear.

ScienceInsider: So you have somebody in mind?
Holdren: I do. And this is a big deal for the president. His commitment to education is clear, and it's shared by the Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. We're going to do a lot in that domain.

ScienceInsider: Staying with education, do you think that the Texas state school board's recent decision to add a skeptical view of the study of evolution and the fossil record weaken the state's science standards and weaken national efforts to improve science education?
Holdren: Well, I have not reviewed that decision carefully. But my impression from reading about it is that it was not a step forward but rather a step backward. Of course, all science needs to be skeptical. It's hard to be against skepticism. But when you get into the domain of promoting particular views about the basis for skepticism of evolution, and those views are not really valid, then I think we have a problem. I think we need to be giving our kids a modern education in biology, and the underpinning of modern biology is evolution. And countervailing views that are not really science, if they are taught at all, should be taught in some other part of the curriculum.

ScienceInsider: Is there anything you can do?
Holdren: I'm not aware of any leverage we have, at OSTP or within the federal government, over the science curriculum in Texas, other than exhortation. We can argue and we can beg and we can try to educate. But we have no authority to act.

ScienceInsider: Do you foresee a bigger role for NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] in NPOESS [National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System]?
Holdren: I think NOAA will play a bigger role. It has an exceedingly well informed and able leader in Jane Lubchenco, and we should take advantage of that. But we are going to take a look at the relationship between NOAA, the Department of Defense, and NASA, and try to get that right. It is one of our roles, to coordinate activities among agencies. But it's a challenge, when you have three agencies, one of which is an 800-pound gorilla, to get the collaboration right.

ScienceInsider: Were you troubled by the recent National Academies' report that one in six life scientists say they have self-censored some of their research because of security concerns, and is there anything you can do?
Holdren: That is a tough one. I think security concerns in the biological domain are real, and we cannot be cavalier about the propagation of findings that could be used by terrorists to harm us. But what the right approach to managing those risks is, is something we'll continue to struggle with. There was self-censoring within the nuclear physics community in the late '30s and '40s, when it became clear to scientists that there was potential for weapons of vast destructive power. And I think that was a good thing.

ScienceInsider: Do you think bioterrorism is of the same magnitude?
Holdren: I'm not qualified to judge. But it is something we have to look at closely and think hard about.

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